by Pierre Wyss
Translation Louise Thunin
How difficult it is to translate well ! By clarifying the meaning of the Hebrew verb used in the first verse of Genesis, Pierre Wyss enlarges our understanding of the « creation » of the heavens and the earth.
In this first biblical narrative of the creation in seven steps, the verb « to create », bara in Hebrew, partakes of the semantic field that includes « to make – to build – to elaborate. » Need we be reminded that the translation from one language into another cannot be reduced to simple mathematical equivalences between the source language and the target language ?
If we need to remember this in the sphere of our contemporary Indo-European languages, it is capital to be conscious of it when the original text is more than two thousand years old and belongs, moreover, to another lingustic group, that of semitic languages and, in our case, Hebrew.
The verb bara well illustrates this preoccupation. To the well-known notions of « to make – to build – to elaborate », the semantic field of bara adds, in a seemingly surprising way at first sight, an antithetical connotation that evokes a cutting-off, a separation. On this point, A. Abécassis, a contemporary Jewish thinker, essentially attributes to bara the meaning of « to separate. »
To separate has a positive meaning
Our modern mind seems to perceive positively whatever participates in making-building-elaborating, echoing « to create », and negatively all the forms of breaking up, with the pain that accompanies them. This is, in fact, reinforced in the religious sense with the Greek etymology of diabolos – devil – which means separator !
Thus, this verb bara, which links creation and separation, offers the reader of Genesis 1 a more subtle and stimulating understanding of the text: « In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. » If we stay with the simple understanding of the verb as « to make », sounding indeed a bit commonplace, it would be saying that all the Creator did was put together two Lego pieces, a blue one on top of a brown one !
On the other hand, if I read: « In the beginning God separated the heavens and the earth, » this first verse of the Bible announces the program of all that is to follow. The separation of the heavens and the earth signifies the emergence or manifestation of two irreducibly different entities, of transcendence and immanence, of the divine and the human. Indeed, the writer of this poem couldn’t have thought of it in his day and age, but the contemporary reader can yet add the example of polarity ( + – ), found in the innermost structure of matter.
Separation allows for relationship
Thus, with seven Hebrew words including bara in this first verse of Genesis, the writer has posed the principle of polarity and of non-confusion as a sine qua non of life. The development which follows in the next seven verses appears as the unfoldment and the recurrent reminder of this initial principle.
The separation of the elements of creation constitutes a highly visible thread running through the whole text. In the series of creative acts, other verbs take over and bara reappears for the first time with the creation of animal life.
However, oddly enough, when there is a question of creating man-woman, bara appears redundantly, three times in the same verse. This gives us the impression that the writer must have felt he was stepping on eggshells when he refers to the closeness between Creator and human being, a closesness which made it than ever imperative to brandish bara in order to maintain the insuperable space, however slight, between the human and the divine. Thus, the religious idea, even Christian idea, of « God within us » is totally foreign to the thinking of Genesis 1.
And the final point of the text, its last word, is again bara ! « These are the generations of the heavens and the earth in their creation-separation. » In contrast to the general idea of creation as an assembling of diverse elements, Genesis 1 perceives the creative divine action as a vast process of successive distinguishng of these elements, a great tidying of the primordial upheaval. The clear distinction between the entities of creation, totally opposite to their confusion, hangs finally on putting into place the space necessary to the advent of relationship, the motor of life.
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